Rethinking learning: a review of social and emotional learning for education systems

(Reposted from: UNESDOC Digital Library)

By Nandini Chatterjee Singh and Anantha Duraiappah

The UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development recently published Rethinking learning: a review of social and emotional learning for education systems, edited by Nandini Chatterjee Singh and Anantha Duraiappah. See the director’s message below.

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Director’s Message

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies ‘depression’ as a mental disorder affecting more than 264 million people globally. Extreme levels of depression can lead to suicide, affecting close to 800,000 people annually around the world. Moreover, suicides are known to be the second-highest leading form of death amongst 15-29 year olds. In the current fast-paced and competitive environment, in which individuals are attempting to ‘succeed’, they are also experiencing undue levels of stress. This stress is apparent, particularly amongst children and adolescents as many feel pressurised to ‘perform well’ at school or generally in their lives.

Pressure to excel in exams and assessments is prevalent in most education systems as a criterion to ‘get ahead of the curve’ or to ‘find the perfect job’. Further, tight deadlines and interpersonal conflicts cause high levels of stress in classrooms. Recent evidence indicates that stress may hamper the natural form of learning and induce a shift from “flexible ‘cognitive’ form of learning” to “rigid, habit-like behaviour”. Furthermore, stress can have a significant impact on learning and memory processes. Learning is most effective in a stress-free environment or when learners are equipped with coping mechanisms that help them deal with daily stress.

Emotions play a critical role in influencing what we learn and how much we learn. Similarly, the content of what we learn also influences our emotions. Recent advances in neurosciences suggest that the critical aspects that we use substantively in schools (i.e. attention, memory, decision-making), are “affected by and subsumed within the process of emotion”. Emerging research also highlights the connections between the cognitive and emotional functions of our brain, and the role that the emotional function plays in imparting effective learning experiences. In order to navigate the idea of the influence that emotions have on our learning and vice versa, it is critical for individuals to be emotionally resilient, which effectively means the ability of individuals to adapt to different situations.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can be described as learning that allows all learners to identify and navigate emotions, practice mindful engagement and exhibit prosocial behaviour for human flourishing towards a peaceful and sustainable planet. Research suggests that SEL is key to building emotional resiliency in individuals. This research is in line with emerging literature from the neurosciences, which encourages the ‘whole-brain learning approach’, suggesting that just as the brain, which is the ‘seat’ of our learning experiences, can be trained in cognitive intelligence, it can also be trained in ‘emotional intelligence’.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can be described as learning that allows all learners to identify and navigate emotions, practice mindful engagement and exhibit prosocial behaviour for human flourishing towards a peaceful and sustainable planet. Research suggests that SEL is key to building emotional resiliency in individuals.

With increasing evidence of the effectiveness of SEL in classrooms, various frameworks, resources and curricula have been developed the world over. The proliferation of SEL frameworks requires a critical science and evidence-based review of the literature in order to define key constituents of quality SEL that can be imparted to the learner as SEL frameworks are increasingly being adopted by education systems globally.

This publication is in response to this urgent need for a science and evidence-based guide on the adoption of SEL in classrooms. Credibility of frameworks is an absolute necessary condition if we are to do this “right”. The publication, titled ‘Rethinking Learning – A Review of Social and Emotional Learning for Education Systems’ intends to provide an overview of the SEL literature and serves as a guidance to teachers, policymakers, parents and learners on what constitutes key characteristics of a ‘good’ SEL framework. The evidence provided by this review is not only robust and compelling but advocates an urgent need to mainstream SEL in education systems, to ensure both mental well-being and improve academic growth.

This publication would not have been possible without the valuable contribution of many experts. The unique nature of this publication highlights the key insights a multi-disciplinary lens brings to the educational sphere. I am happy to have worked with some of the world’s most recognised experts in the field of SEL for the development of this publication. A vote of special thanks must also go to the excellent panel of independent experts who very closely reviewed the publication and provided valuable insights and recommendations to further strengthen the publication.

I am confident that this publication will be a useful tool for a range of stakeholders from educational policymakers to school administrators to teachers. The Summary for Decision Makers (SDM) offers a quick synopsis of what this publication can offer to the various stakeholders and I hope that the Call to Action offers a recipe for the kind of change in our educational systems that
is needed to build peaceful and sustainable societies across the world.

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Anantha K. Duraiappah

Director, UNESCO MGIEP

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